Love Song to Certain Spaces Pt.1

Love song to certain spaces.

  1. RiverHouse

The moon is still shining when the sun comes up.

I know this because I see the moon in the mirror by the sliding glass wall as soon as the warm nimbus of sleep evaporates and waits until dark near the ceiling, and, through the glass, the sun illuminates the top of the grassy hill across the river. The light will slide down the hill as the sun rises over Tivy Mountain behind us and the moon slowly dissolves.


Whether Greg sleeps on, leaves for work, or joins me, I watch the world wake from the great room as I struggle to corral the thoughts, resolutions, and images that come in the night, drinking milky coffee to hurry them onto a page. There’s a lull and maybe an osprey flies past.


Once I’m staring at raptors, not recording dreams and ideas, I stop and stretch mindlessly while a beautiful Asian dancer, who pronounces his l’s and r’s in a peculiar way, urges me to reach my Lleft hand backwierds, and willingly I do so to the background song of a beautiful alto voice or low-toned flute. All the while, the sun slips down the mountain and into the water. The river surface skips upstream or down depending on the wind or lack of it. In summer evenings, when the river is full and the current strong, and the wind rushes up the canyon, the pool water appears to flow east, while the river beyond flows west. On a windy winter morning, the surface water flows east toward its source in Kings Canyon. “Thank you, Namaste,” says the soothing voice.


In other spaces I might eat my breakfast standing at a counter while reading New York Times online, but this house insists I carry my cereal back to the window. I still read the news—I have to—but sitting back where my journal is, watching the light from various windows try this pose and that (and they are fancy), often untethers an idea or two.


If Greg hasn’t let the dogs out–Haley and Anna, queensland mixes—I take them for a walk down to the river and up on the bluff above; leashless as they are, the girls are walking me. They pantomime wild stories of what they would’ve done if I’d just let them out at night (usually too risky with the road so close), or they re-enact their exploits from nights when we relent and let them shoo away the wild pigs or chicken-eating foxes. As we go I collect treasures. A dreamcatcher of hawk feathers and sycamore bark, dry leaves and seedpods, mountain cucumber spines that look like puffer fish floats above our bed. I had intended to change it with the seasons, but over the years, I have just added, rarely subtracted.


I love to look back at the house from the river. With the mountain behind, the house is just another foothill. It’s the fancy foothill–while the hills are green or gold or red, occasionally white, the house is silver. The wall of glass, practically the entire north side, attempts camouflage as it reflects the colors of the hills and trees, but it can’t shake the shine. With my red Massey-Ferguson, I have sculpted the bluff around the house to complement the curves. Greg moved in boulders. We’ve worked hard, made good choices, and we’re proud.


The dogs can play by themselves now (always have two dogs, or they never let you work). I can sit down for a couple-three hours before lunch. Yesterday, I was editing a text about organic architecture translated from the Italian into English by a German. The piece is well-structured, the analysis is sound. The writer is brilliant, an architect himself. The translator is accurate, classically trained and obviously multi-lingual. The vocabulary is dense with jargon—all precise, but hopefully for an audience of specialists. I can identify elements to fact-check, quotes that require attribution. I myself would prune out many of the adjectives, but so far, I’ve only excised the word “perfect” and rearranged a handful of sentences, remaining true to the style of the author/translator. It reminds me of people who walk into my house, look around and say they love my interior design style (“who did it?” “I did.” My husband looks at me, whether he’s there or not. “Well, we did.” I’m forever taking credit for projects Greg and I do together). Unless that admirer authentically wants me to design his or her space the way I’d like it, I’d be stuck. I don’t know how real interior designers channel a client’s style or priorities. This editing project is like a lover of Baroque asking for my interior design advice.


Unless sucked into a compulsive vortex (which happens occasionally), I have trouble working for long stretches in one place. It’s increasingly difficult for me if the space is small or my line of sight dies into right angles. With its curved glass wall and varying lines, I can work in the large open great room as long as all is quiet. My “desk” is tucked into the drawers below the window seat. From there, I can look out at the front yard, Tivy Mountain, and the road that separates the two. We have a lawn-mowing llama who likes to hang out under the blue oak there. If there’s noise–we don’t have much, but traffic or helicopters or rare loud park guests across the river can distract me—I turn on the fountain, which has the same timbre as traffic and voices. Helicopters make me want to write war scenes. With a laptop, I can float from perch to perch around the wide room as my mood, inclination, or 56-year-old back determine. The ceiling is arched inside so that thoughts slide across and come back down the other side. Focus is difficult, but I designed (this really was my idea) two long straight counters for laying scraps of paper in stacks. My daughter gave me Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit as we were planning, and I included a row of wicker boxes as she suggests for sorting. Tharp insists on a routine as a necessary platform for creativity. I’m buying what she’s selling.


While I appreciate the proximity of the outdoors, I’m glad to be inside when it’s hot or cold (the Sierra foothills give us both). Still, we have no AC, and our heat radiates from the floor. I wear a sweater and vest in winter and little more than a swimsuit in summer, the better to cool off in the pool or river at will. I prefer a modified version of the weather outdoors. The lack-of-AC-thing stuns most people, but we have a breeze off the river, a whole-house fan, and six matching ceiling fans (I love the way they look, especially when they’re going, because you can see all them at the same time. They add to the illusion that there are mirrors above the 8-foot walls, but those are glass. That fan is on and this one isn’t.


The glass uppers of all the interior walls add magic similar to the morning moon and sun. In fact, the moon and the sun are generally the stars of this magic show as well. From the kitchen, we can see through the den to the mountain beyond, and sometimes the full moon will shine from the south into the kitchen (on the north side of the house). Greg can call “bald eagle!” from the shower, and I can watch her path (east to west in the morning, west to east in the evening; the raptors also have a routine). That the glass blocks sound so well is a joy and a frustration, as we were accustomed to talking casually between rooms at the Creek House (Lencioni Residence).


Unless the weather is impossible, I take lunch out on the terrace. Sun and rain don’t stop me as the overhang stretches fifteen feet—more, if you measure the diagonal. The animals come and catch me up on their exploits (no matter what, it was Anna’s fault—poor Anna). They can convince me to go out to the garden for a little while. “Just 30 minutes,” I tell them. “We do need lettuce for dinner.”


My grandmother would read for an hour after lunch; she always had a library book going and a small stack on the bench by the door. She might take a nap with her keys in her hand and wake when the keys dropped (Greg calls this a “pencil nap,” but I don’t think he uses a pencil. He slides the doors to the den closed and emerges refreshed). But, unless I’m sick or grossly sleep-deprived, I can’t nap. Reading can be a wormhole for me, so I have to be cautious if I start. So, I have daytime reading and evening reading. Heidi Julavits’ “diary” The Folded Clock is brilliant daytime reading. On page 82, her thoughts go to ghosts: “We wondered if people mistook for ghost sightings what was, in fact, a primal fear response to poorly arranged rooms.” She catalogues rooms which lack escape options or have too many unprotected entrances, obviously problems for different types of people. She worried when she awoke facing west, “something better was happening elsewhere.”


I’ve thought a lot about the psychological impact of space. I see our house as a form of architherapy, but clearly every mind is different; there can be mismatches. Perhaps, to successfully achieve form, architecture as inhabited art must reflect the specific kilter of the minds of those who live there. I feel soothed and well in my house, and I think Greg does too, but some people say they couldn’t live in a place so open. For me, there’s the problem of the square: when I must work in a rectilinear space, I subconsciously cock my chair at an angle. My office at the college, for instance, has a fixed window facing a corny pink crepe myrtle (“lack of escape options”) and on the opposite side a narrow glass panel (that some professors cover up!) and a solid door, which I (with apologies to my dear colleagues) never close and face when I’m not glued to the computer. “Do you want me to close the door, Mrs. Lapp?” students ask as they leave. It’s all I can do not to fling myself at it to keep it from shutting. All my important mementos that I am human and have a personality outside this place are in my line of sight when I face the door.


Besides the dreamcatcher over the bed (it’s not a mystic dreamcatcher, actually, that’s just what everyone calls it, so it stuck), we have very little wall space for artwork. There are a few paintings by local artists, a Georgia O’Keefe reproduction (it was originally just a placeholder, but it’s dark orange/red and I love to lose myself in it), a painting by Greg’s cousin Aaron Lapp that we both love, and a triptych of running horses from the old ranch house that so enlivens the piano corner of the great room and matches Aaron’s dancers they will stay.


Such an open floorplan risks a storage problem. I try not to accumulate stuff, but it gets in anyhow. To this end, every interior wall has some sort of shelf, cupboard or closet on both sides. Between the kitchen and the den, for instance, the den side bookshelf backs up to a cupboard Greg calls the “starsky” (because I don’t like the word “hutch”). The two walls without glass above the 8-foot line have shelves to the 16-foot apex, which we access, when necessary, with a telescoping ladder.


Cooking is pleasure for both of us: Greg is sous and science—he chops, and makes complicated cheeses and pickles, olives, even beer and wine. We have ample space at various levels around a circular island of leatherized granite. We entertain often—weeknight dinners or weekend lunch. Usually, we have six or so at the table inside or out, but the room can accommodate fifty guests for a concert facing the piano (black folding chairs have their own bank of cupboards by the piano), and the ceiling creates surround-sound acoustics.


We settle to read in the den or the great room, depending on the weather. If I read later, I have a light in the nook that doesn’t bleed into the bedroom. Nights are quiet. Without heating and cooling there’s minimal white noise, just owls, coyotes, the water if the river’s high.

2. Creek House



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